Magazine article History Today

The Great Smog. (Frontline)

Magazine article History Today

The Great Smog. (Frontline)

Article excerpt

WHILE THE GOLDEN JUBILEE of Elizabeth II has been in full swing since the summer, another anniversary of unhappier events that occurred in the year of her accession remains largely unsung. From December 1952 to March 1953 in Greater London 12,000 residents more than usual perished in what was modern London's most massive civilian disaster. Smoke from a million chimneys ran like water and pumped clotted, coal-fumes into cooler stilled air. Unable to disperse upwards through the heavier chillier air, hot, smoky fumes fell to the ground and did not visibly diminish for a solid week.

During the unprecedented 1952 smog, the sun remained unseen. Dark days became murky shadowed nights. Because more people lived closer together in London at that time than in any other modern city, the city's residents suffered a colossal health toll.

The historian Peter Brimblecombe reports that for centuries, the city had the world's greatest concentration of coal stoves, most inhospitable airs and regularly foggy weather. In the Middle Ages, mountains of coal piled up in London as a result of sea trade. From its large port, London regularly sent out vessels laden with animal hides, whale oil, tallow, dried fish and meats, fertiliser and wools. Ships often returned from the less-populated northern British Isles empty, except for the crew. To weather the rough seas around the coast, mariners filled their holds with what became known as sea-coale, carbonem marus.

By the thirteenth century, mounds of dusty black rock clogged city streets, docks and alleys. In an effort to rid themselves of the black heaps that filled the city, Londoners began to char coal, which lasted longer and burned hotter than wood. Not all were enthralled with its smoke. Queen Eleanor, fleeing the fumes created by heavy use of sea-coale in Nottingham Castle in 1257, issued one of many fruitless royal bans on coal burning. By the fifteenth century, London's skies were regularly blackened with coal smoke. Many residents blamed the region's foggy weather for the persistent greyed airs.

The debate about whether coal smoke affected human health ended the winter of 1952-53 in London. On December 8th, cool air from across the English Channel settled over the Thames Valley and did not move. Within a week more than 3,000 deaths than usual had occurred. The medical essayist David Bates, then a young physician experienced in wartime medicine, recalls that officials could not imagine that the environment could produce more civilian casualties in London than any single incident of the war. In sheer scale this disaster could not be ignored. In one week alone 4,703 people died, compared with 1,852 during the same week the previous year.

Bates recounts the reluctance of officials to accept that so many people had suddenly dropped dead merely from breathing dirty air. He adds: `The public realised this earlier than the government of the day.'

One Member of Parliament put this episode into context when he asked Harold Macmillan, then Minister of Housing: `Does the Minister not appreciate that last month, in Greater London alone, there were literally more people choked to death by air pollution than were killed on the roads in the whole country in 1952?'

Eager to put off demands that measures be taken to reduce use of dirtier coal, and focus on the nation's grim economic realities, the British Government sprang into inaction. …

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